Sick and sweaty in Pokhara (Matt & Laura)
May 26, 2007
We are perched on the tailgate of a jeep, clasping a metal handbar with a sweaty, life-sustaining grip. There are four others hanging off the back while more than ten are squeezed together in stale sweaty bliss inside. Thankfully, we don't move very fast along the windy road. Not having a lot of faith in the aluminium bar upon which our weight is balanced, I close my eyes and hope for the best. When we arrive at the bottom of the hill, the jeep drives onto the shoulder with a shudder and a bounce, sending one tailgate rider into the air to land with a thud. He is ok despite curses and a scraped hand.
Within five minutes, a bus to Pokhara drives by and within ten we have crawled over stacks of cardboard boxes and bags of potatoes and rice to find the last remaining seats: in the very back. A few minutes later, the speaker over our heads crackles to life with a static-filled, humming blast of Indian pop. It is a song we will hear over and over for the next three hours, being either the driver's favourite or, more likely, the only cassette he has.
To say the ride is bumpy is an incredible understatement. At times, we are hurtled airborne from our seats to land with a spine-jarring thud a moment later. We careen along beside sheer cliffs, through small towns bursting with horn blasting traffic, and past innumerable military bunkers with the blue camouflaged soldiers sitting idly with their machine guns behind barbed wire and sandbags. This country has a feeling of being in a war without anyone to fight against.
Within a couple of hours, we reach the outskirts of Pokhara, the white dome of the Peace Pagoda perched on a distant hillside signalling our arrival. We're dumped unceremoniously on a taxi tout infested roadside along a busy, rather unattractive street. Before long, we're speeding to a guesthouse recommended to us by a man we met while trekking: "midrange at budget prices." The place turns out to be pleasant enough, clean, quiet, and inexpensive. We can't ask for much more than that.
The tourist area of Pokhara is a lakeside strip of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and trekking stores. Basically, it is Thamel in Kathmandu but with shopkeepers who stare at you tiredly as you walk past, half-heartedly calling out a sales pitch if you happen to show much interest. It is off season here. Everything is empty, and the tourist strip has a sleepy, forlorn feeling. We walk the strip, eat at one of the many mediocre restaurants, and head back to our guesthouse to rest after our bus ride.
I wake the next morning feeling feverish and queasy. It feels like the flu. I remain in bed most of the day, venturing out only for meals. I must have picked up something on the bus.
Pokhara is quite warm, at least 30 degrees all day, until the monsoon rains arrive around 4PM. Within two hours the rain stops, the temperature is cool, and -- despite the newly emerged mosquitoes -- it is quite pleasant for dinner. I'm not much for eating though, my stomach not being particularly kind to me.
The next day, Laura joins my feverish, queasy state. We lay about most of the day as the flu -- or whatever it is -- has its way with us. By the following day, I'm finally feeling better. I decide to embark on some errands while Laura sleeps in our room.
A barber cuts my now uncomfortably long hair for the equivalent of $2. I leave with a meticulous and quite acceptable haircut with shoulder/scalp massage thrown in. Not bad. Every haircut brings concerns about lice and such, but I hope for the best.
The next day, I figure I'll try to mail our large and heavy bundle of trekking clothes home. We've been carrying a blanket, wool hat, mittens, and fleece jackets around with us for quite a while. With the temperature in India hovering around 45 degrees, we figure we probably won't need mittens.
I jump into a cab with my bundle of clothes and ask for the post office. I know I cannot wrap anything beforehand -- customs needs to inspect it -- but I hope they will have someone to wrap it for me! I chuckle at myself: like India, if there is an opportunity to make some money, there will be somebody taking it. I'm sure there will be someone there to wrap everything up perfectly.
The post office is a small dilapidated concrete building that would resemble a barn if there were any chickens around. A sign declares it opened fifteen minutes ago, but there is no one behind any of the counters and the place is empty except for the line of impatient, letter-wielding customers. I get in line.
Eventually, a man and woman appear. The woman yells past the people in line ahead of me, "How much weigh?" I reply I don't know. She yells, "Go outside! Scale. Outside." She waves toward the door. Hmmm. The scale is OUTSIDE the post office? Strange. I wander out, down a narrow gravel walkway with barbed wire strung along one side. There's a door on one side. I open it and walk in. I seem to be in the back of the post office. There is no one around. There IS a scale however. I stack my things on top, walk around the counter, and read the numbers: five and a half kilos. I remove a small book to lower the weight to a neat 5 kilos (the maximum amount for the cheaper rate ... and figure it is rather ironic that I need to remove my book to be eligible for the so-called "book rate post" discount).
I return the way I came to join a now-longer line-up. This time I'm ready for her question! My taxi driver wanders in. I ask him if he knows where they can wrap parcels. "Don't they do it here?" he asks. I reply I don't know. He then starts talking to a man behind the counter in Nepali. There is a lot of head shaking and gesturing concluding with, I'm told, a negative answer. No wrapping.
We start walking the street, the taxi driver and I, in search for a wrapping person (or even wrapping materials). Nothing. He explains that the post office man told him the maximum weight of a parcel is 2kg. Faced with the prospect of sending three separate parcels, each wrapped with separate sets of non-existent packing materials, I decide to try DHL instead. At least they'll have a box!
DHL weighs my things, adds half a kilo for the weight of the box they supply, and then request $240US. Ummm ... NO. Not for clothing (well I can't actually think of anything I'd pay $240US to send 5 kilos of). I leave. They don't even let me buy the box. I return, humbled by the Nepali postal system and disgusted by the incredibly surly and overpriced courier, to our hotel (and Laura who remains sick and feverish in bed). I will mail our things from India.
When we both feel well enough, we take a bus to downtown Pokhara to explore. We wander toward old Pokhara past some artisan shops where ceramic religious figures and wood carvings are made. Yet most of the streets are no different from a small Indian town, yet with less traffic. We pass shop after shop of men doing nothing: they stare listlessly into the street, drink tea, or watch television. Outside, the occasional pedestrian walks by slowly, each with a large umbrella to block the heat of the sun.
We follow the angled streets to the Gurkha museum, a building dedicated to the feats of the Gurkha's recruited to serve as soldiers in the British army. What became an elite fighting force began as British prisoners of war forced to fight for the queen. Soldiers undergo a gruelling recruitment process -- sometimes enduring broken bones and other injuries -- in order to become a Gurkha solder and, in turn, earn 1000 British pounds a month and the opportunity to retire to England. In a country where most people earn less than 1 pound a day, there is no surprise that this remains a popular option for young men and their families.
We explore the museum, read the stories of solders performing bravely in battle, often losing their lives. In time, we leave, catch a bus, and are soon back at our guesthouse. Our trip into Pokhara confirmed that people do not come here for the city. It is the mountains, the popular Annapurna trek, that draws tourists. I'm pleased to have seen the town, but disappointed that I see little to distinguish it from most Indian cities we've visited.
On our last day in Pokhara, we decide to walk to the Peace Pagoda, perched on a nearby hilltop overlooking the lake. Our guidebook and the internet is filled with warnings about the walk. Muggings are common, it says. Go in groups. People jump out from behind trees and demand money. Some who refuse and keep walking have been successful in avoiding being robbed. We're nervous and stash our money, passports, and credit cards in different, hopefully sufficiently concealed places around our room. Then we head out.
Despite our instructions being pretty sketchy, we manage to find the trail up the mountain, spurn a group of children trying to guide us for a fee, and head up. The walk is quite beautiful. The forest is quiet and peaceful, echoing with the sound of cicadas. We walk quietly, watching for men lurking about. Instead, we notice small groups of people, each with a number of sari-clad women, walking slowly uphill. We are hot, sweaty, and much more relaxed when we finally reach the top of the hill about an hour later.
At the top, a few restaurants sell soda and snacks. Several are abandoned, their walls crooked and roofs starting to cave in. Even the pagoda itself, so brilliantly white and perfect looking from below, is broken. The handrailing has been systematically broken off and a stack of ladders and wood blocks the steps that lead upward. The place has a forlorn, half-broken feeling. No where is there any mention of "peace" or even the name "Peace Pagoda". I snap some photos and we head back the way we came.
We take a quick detour to Devi's Falls, a waterfall named after a Swiss traveller who had been caught in a flash flood and was swept into the river which falls about 100 meters into a deep crevasse before continuing underground. What a terrible way to go. The place is full of Indian tour groups. We take some photos and leave after getting our fill of the falls. A quick bus trip later and we're back in Lakeside and waiting (for over an hour it turns out) for lunch.
So despite several days of seeing little more than our hotel room, we do finally see something of Pokhara. What we saw failed to interest us much. It is a utilitarian town, suitable for pre-trek shopping and post-trek eating. Like so many places in Nepal, in Pokhara lingers the ghosts of travellers who left years ago as the Maoist conflict turned violent and have not yet returned.
Its time to continue on to Tansen. We have hopes it will be like Bandipur. Our guidebook tells us it is a "romantic medieval hill town" mostly free of cars which "add to its charm." Sounds promising ...
Some random thoughts:
-With fresh vegetables everywhere, including corn, eggplant, peppers, rice, potatoes, and lots more, why is Nepali food so bland and have so little variety? People seem to eat the exact same thing every day for each meal. Similarly, I don't understand why a restaurant would fill its menu with items that it cannot cook quickly or well, just for the sake of variety. Restaurants served me pineapple juice that tasted like dirty dishwater, a pizza topped with uncooked hot dogs, spaghetti with sauce from a can, and many other nasty meals.
The first two days in Pokhara are a fevery haze of sleeping and making dashes for the toilet. Needless to say, not my favourite place so far in Nepal. However, upon recovery, I do enjoy our time here as it is an ideal place to recover.
Our hotel room is nice and the owners are very friendly and concerned about us. There are two separate Indian tour groups who spend a night in our hotel and they completely take over. A full busload of people arrives, fills up the lobby with their trays of food lining the floor and they whole gang sits down to a meal at 10:30pm. Seems strange to us to eat so late, but the sense of community and family is so nice to see. The owners keep checking in with us to see if we were okay as I think they are afraid we will leave. "Indian tourists don't care about anyone else" he tells us. Don't worry I tell him, we have been to India, we understand. In fact, it feels quite normal to us and kind of makes us a bit homesick for the familiarity of India (I honestly never thought I would write these words!).
The meals in Pokhara were often bad, but we did find one Italian restaurant that had nice ambience (candles and jazz music) and good food (but, really, vegetarian linguine is not rocket science). We went twice for dinner and once for breakfast, where a dog joined us under our table and a gaggle of water buffaloes walked right pas the front entrance threatening to come onto the patio and say hello.
Our walk up to the Peace Pagoda is really lovely and I thoroughly enjoy being in the forest. I was quite nervoous about being robbed and chuckled to myself about the irony of being afraid of visiting the Peace Pagoda. If anywhere should instill a sense of calm, that should be it. Sometimes reading too much on the Internet can make one too nervous. The climb up is hot, but then that is something we have to accept now. Summer is in full swing and we even manage to view some pre-monsoon rains. Like clockwork, the day heats up to an uncomfortable level and then the wind starts; a heavy rain for a two hours or so, and then cool air. Ahhh! So nice. I wonder what India's monsoon will be like? The rain only comes for three days and then we don't see it again. We were enjoying the rhythm of the day knowing when to be outside and when to plan some time inside cooling off. But, that's the funny thing about nature, we can't control it and the people here live at the mercy of the rains to water their crops and make it through to next year.